Posts Tagged power

Lighting the Windows of Our Lives


For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

My favorite part of any Christmas Eve service — and, I suspect, the favorite part for most Unitarian Universalist ministers — is the ceremony of passing the flame. With a single candle lit from the chalice, the flame is silently passed along the rows, and from each row to the one behind. Standing at the pulpit, I can see the tongues of fire multiplying as they spread, until soft light shines in every face and the whole Sanctuary is aglow. Then, each of us holding our candles, we sing “Silent Night”, adding another dimension to the warmth and beauty that fills the room.

Christmas Eve photograph by Rosalee Pfister

There are many ways to understand the symbolism of this ceremony. The individual flame can represent hope or love or wisdom or kindness, something that we all have, something that we all…

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To Be Good Stewards of Our Own Power


For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
– Our Fifth Principle

I spent two of January’s Tuesdays in Richmond, the first for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People and the second for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action.  Both were opportunities to learn about the legislative process and the bills before the Virginia General Assembly and then to meet with our elected representatives or their legislative aides to share with them our opinions of those bills and other views on what matters to us.

Now most of us experience some anxiety or at least nervousness when it comes to approaching those who make the laws that govern our lives.  I’d…

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We have the power!

“We have more power than we claim, but not as much as we need.”

One of the commitments that Unitarian Universalist ministers make is to continuing education.  Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm this as well by offering their ministers some weeks each year as “study leave”, time free of congregational responsibilities so that it can be spent in courses, workshops and seminars.  And both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (or UUMA) offer a number of opportunities for on-going professional development, too.

A couple of years ago the UUMA shifted its emphasis for Continuing Education, Networking, Training, Enrichment and Renewal or CENTER from the pre-General-Assembly meeting known as Ministry Days to a separate, week-long, mid-Winter meeting named the CENTER Institute for Excellence in Ministry.  The first of these was held in California in 2011 and the second recently took place in Florida.  (The plan is to hold the Institute every other year, alternating between locations on the East and West coasts, and the California location has already been announced for 2015!)

I attended this year’s CENTER Institute along with almost five-hundred other Unitarian Universalist ministers.  Each of us chose one of eight three-day seminars in which to participate as the core of the meeting.  We also enjoyed uplifting worship services and wonderful times catching up with old colleagues over meals and watching the Sun set over the Gulf of Mexico — sometimes simultaneously!  A particular highlight was the closing worship at which the Reverend Doctor James Forbes, Senior Minister Emeritus to the Riverside Church in New York, preached a powerful sermon about “a new anointment for a new appointment”, making the case that this country needs a religious re-awakening and that he (as a non-UU!) fully expects Unitarian Universalists to lead the way.

The seminar I chose to attend was “Power with Love”, led by Marlin Lavanhar and Tamara Lebak, Senior Minister and Associate Minister, respectively, to All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  (At almost 1,800 members, All Souls is the largest bricks-and-mortar congregation in the whole Unitarian Universalist Association, but it is perhaps best known for its radical embrace of multiculturalism when a few years ago it absorbed the remnant of an African-American Pentecostal church after their bishop came out as a Universalist.)  Noting that ministers are usually given little guidance in “how to identify and leverage their power effectively”, Marlin and Tamara aimed in their seminar to cover topics including “leading with vision, raising the money to achieve vision, collaborative leadership, power within a multicultural community, and effective Unitarian Universalist justice-making.”

During the three days of the seminar, we covered all of these topics and more!  (As well as handouts, I have pages and pages of notes that, since returning from Florida, I am slowly working through as a way to start using what I learned.)  Though there were, at times, challenges to our own comfort zones, I found the seminar a wholly fulfilling experience, covering so many different ideas and offering so many practical tools for using our own power and authority to reclaim the incredible promise of our liberal religion.  It gives me confidence that we are indeed turning a corner in our faith tradition, trying to live up to our potential — and certainly the potential that others like the Rev. Dr. James Forbes can see in us — where Unitarian Universalism can no longer be jokingly dismissed, as past UUA President John Buehrens put it, as “the largest, longest lasting, most widely dispersed therapy program for people with authority issues that American culture has ever seen”!

I’ll leave you with a recommendation to watch the video we saw at the very start of the CENTER Institute seminar.  I look forward to hearing from you what you think about its message!

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In Service to Love

Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

— Blake Covenant of 1894

Ours is an engaged religion.  Whether we’re cooperating in one another’s faith development, supporting our own members struggling with adversity or working with our community partners to address social needs, Unitarian Universalists are engaged with the lives and the world around them.

Such engagement does indeed take many different forms.  Each of us, for instance, is a steward of our own community, accepting the responsibility to take care of something we do not own.  Membership represents a commitment to not only support our congregation financially, but to also help realize our shared vision of “spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community”.  Every time we teach a class or participate in a discussion group, every time we take a meal to a member recovering from surgery, every time we volunteer at St. Paul’s or the Living Interfaith Network, we help bring that vision alive.

While engagement and stewardship are characteristics of any self-organizing group of freely associating individuals with a vision for themselves and their world, a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not simply another community group working on social or environmental issues.  The overriding characteristic for UUs is that, while we foster community and address issues, we do so in service to love.

That is why we emphasize covenant, the promises we make to ourselves and to each other about how we intend to behave within beloved community.  Love isn’t easy, whether we’re talking about amorous devotion or beneficent compassion.  Covenant brings us back to our best selves, providing a framework for those times when love is proving more challenging that we’d like, and service to one another and the wider world provides a mechanism for cultivating and re-cultivating that love.

It’s tempting, when first confronted with an issue of injustice, to remain at a certain level of theory and abstraction.  There are certainly no shortage of causes that might impel us to write a letter to the newspaper editor or to a political representative, to educate ourselves on the issues or try to convince others of their importance, even to join a demonstration or a protest.  And those are all valuable activities that are essential to changing systems and structures of oppression.  Also essential — and, in my experience, a powerful source of motivation and resilience — is direct engagement with and service to oppressed communities and those who suffer injustice.

After all, no newspaper article or television report will teach you about poverty or hunger or homelessness like volunteering at a food bank or a shelter.  Nothing will build another’s self-esteem like helping a disadvantaged child to read or meeting a homeless person’s eyes with a genuine smile — nor warm your heart and grow your soul, too.  And nothing dismantles privilege like entering in humility what would otherwise be a relationship governed by relative power, deferring to the wisdom of the oppressed and remaining accountable to those whom society renders powerless.

Rather than denying the world and ourselves, Unitarian Universalism calls us to boldly engage with them, seeking ways of being that strive for peace and justice, and living into the beloved community that fully embraces the humanity of every human being and the preciousness of life on Earth.  If love, in the words of James Vila Blake, “is the spirit of this church and service its law”, how are you answering the call of our living tradition?

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Harvest the Power!

“Life is one big road with lots of signs,
So when you riding through the ruts, don’t you complicate your mind:
Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy!
Don’t bury your thoughts; put your vision to reality, yeah!”

— Bob Marley

A few years ago I was on the receiving end of a telephone interview when I was asked to name my leadership style.  It wasn’t a question I was expecting, nor was it one I’d ever been asked before, so I tried to come up with something based on my experience in Unitarian Universalism.  I talked — though perhaps “rambled” would be a more apt word — about cooperative and collaborative leadership, sharing power with rather than holding power over other people, and companioning them in their own work toward the achievement of common goals.  It evidently wasn’t the sort of answer my interviewers wanted, since they asked me the question again, though all I was able to offer in response was a more concise version of my earlier ramble.

The interview as a whole certainly wasn’t anything to brag about, and I think I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get the job.  Since then, though, I’ve continued to think about leadership, particularly in terms of what leadership styles are suitable in UU congregations.  For one thing, by tradition and by character we are a people who value discussions as much as we value decisions.  You may have seen the cartoon that shows a UU who dies and is pleasantly surprised to find that there is a realm of life after death, where stands a crossroads with three signposts.  One reads, “This way to heaven.”  Another reads, “This way to hell.”  And the third reads, “This way to a discussion about heaven and hell.”  Without hesitation the UU goes to the discussion.

From the historical Unitarian emphasis on freedom, reason and tolerance to today’s Unitarian Universalist principles of “acceptance of one another”, “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” and “the right of conscience”, it’s hard to imagine any UU congregation thriving under leadership — ministerial, staff or lay — that is overly directive, much less authoritarian or dictatorial!  Indeed, a leadership style that is consultative and cooperative is very much desired, found in someone who, in the words of the UUA’s former Ministerial Transitions Director David Pohl, “listens as well as speaks, learns as well as teaches, shares the challenges and burdens of leadership rather than monopolizing or relinquishing them.”

Now it’s a rare person who can, in today’s world, dance with those challenges and burdens without some sort of training in, as it were, balance and posture.  Even in 1936, a report of the Commission of Appraisal to the American Unitarian Association lamented the AUA’s condition at that time as being “anarchy mitigated by occasional flashes of brilliant but erratic genius.  Leadership doesn’t come by accident or magic or miracle.  It is the product of careful and patient and far-sighted planning.”  To this end, we now recognize the importance of leadership development, a process of intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth that equips both new and experienced leaders with the technical and visionary skills they need.

Beginning last year, one of the goals of my congregation’s Policy Board has been to “begin a process for leadership development and succession” and, in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration, we offered the UUA’s adult program, “Harvest the Power: Developing Lay Leadership”.  Whether you’re new to Unitarian Universalism or are an old hand, whether you’ve served as a lay leader or a committee chair or are just curious about what’s involved, everyone is invited to join this dance of growth, leadership and vision.  As one of our hymns in Singing the Living Tradition reminds us, “Learn to follow, learn to lead, feel the rhythm, fill the need to reap the harvest, plant the seed.  Let it be a dance.”

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